Elijah Cummings was right. We desperately need a return to normalcy. But, how do we do that? What is our role as American citizens? The Trump presidency has awoken us to the fragility of our democracy, but the crisis didn’t start with him – it culminated in him. Simply removing Trump from office may remove an imminent threat, but it won’t be enough. To truly protect our democracy, we must also respect, value and engage in our democratic process – that is the normalcy we moved away from, that is the normalcy we seek.
Our government isn’t working as it was designed. Tribalism has put a choke-hold on its efficacy. This didn’t happen overnight. In the 90’s, conservative voices such as Pat Buchannan, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh laid the groundwork for the zero-sum approach that is now so commonplace. Fox News rose out of these same voices, providing an echo-chamber to cultivate and corral the Right Wing base. By the second decade of the 2000’s we saw the rise of the Tea Party and an iron-clad refusal to compromise with President Obama. With compromise off the table, Democrats relied on executive action and nuclear options to pass policy and appointments – an approach that incensed the Right as much as it incenses the Left today. While it’s fair to say that the Right started it, the Left is just as dug into tribalism at this point. On the whole, voters are caught in a Catch-22 – they want policy without compromise.
This path led us to Trump, but a functioning government has been the real casualty. Congressional leaders are pressured by their party base more than their actual constituents. Echo-chambers are even more prevalent and online manipulation of political factions is rampant. The inability of Congress to compromise on legislation and provide oversight without a partisan agenda has resulted in a dangerously empowered Executive Branch, a very real vulnerability to autocracy, and an endless cycle of boomerang politics.
There is language that is found uniformly on the Left and the Right, particularly over the past 25 years – a smattering of negative buzz-words that are meant to display ideological purity but are identically used by ideologically polarized groups. Consider these words echoed contemptuously (and synonymously) in conversations up and down the parallel arms of the political horseshoe:
“incrementalism”,”pragmatism”, “compromise”, “establishment”, “centrist”, “moderate”, “neoliberal”, “neoconservative”, “third way”, “corporatist”, “status quo”
Regardless of the response these words may illicit, it should be noted that these terms are not actually synonymous with each other. More importantly, the first three terms (“incrementalism”, “pragmatism”, and “compromise”) are absolutely essential to the proper functioning of our government and the health of our democracy.
This is not to say that, as a people, we can’t fight for changes in the status quo, or desire turnover in the establishment. It doesn’t mean we can’t call out leaders for defending corporations over people. We should do that – it is how change happens. But, where and how we apply pressure for change matters. Lasting change must happen within the democratic process, from the bottom up, and it takes time.
The tug of war of uncompromising tribalism will not yield meaningful progress. Our best policy ideas are destroyed by boomerang politics. European social systems were cultivated and fine-tuned over time, across administrations. There has to be a larger vision with commitment to lasting change and an acceptance that compromise will be a part of that. Policy should be about building a better America with an eye always looking to the future. When lawmakers refuse to engage in the legislative process with a commitment to building on the progress of our nation, then our government has ceased to work.
People have to trust that the government works in order to have faith in the government. They need to reconcile their desire to be uncompromising with their desire for government to function in their interest, as it was intended.
Populism is a risky answer to a government that has ceased to function. Populism wants an object of resentment and populism also wants a messianic leader. The white nationalism that has swept through our country and Europe exemplifies the risk. An “I alone can fix it” candidate should raise red flags no matter where they are on the political spectrum. It only reinforces division, tribalism and autocracy.
It is the people who must fix this. First by demanding that lawmakers remove obstructions to free and fair elections – end Citizens United, restore the Voting Rights Act, prioritize election security. Secondly, by judging Congress on what they are able to accomplish, not on their refusal to compromise. The majority of the electorate wants progress on healthcare, infrastructure, jobs and education. The needle will move if the people’s voices are heard and solid legislation is rewarded over partisanship.
The health of our democracy depends on faith in our institutions, faith in our government process and civic participation by an empowered electorate consisting of different identities and ideologies, but willing to work together for a better future for everyone.